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April 2007

Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2007

Homeless Conservatives: Making it Official?

As often happens, I’ve changed my mind at the last minute about this week’s journal. The catalyst is this post at Crunchy Con and its associated comments, which consider the place of social conservatives in a political realignment which might follow the current troubles of the Republican Party, which is something that’s been on my mind anyway.

Now, it’s not at all new for orthodox Christians to note their differences with both U. S. political parties. The hysterics about “theocracy” coming from people like Kevin Phillips notwithstanding, and the fact that millions of these Christians mostly vote Republican notwithstanding, and the visible attachment of certain prominent Christians (Falwell, Robertson, the Catholic neo-conservatives) to the Republican Party nothwithstanding, the truth, I think, is that most of us don’t have any strong sense of commitment to the Republicans. Prescinding from generalizations about others, and speaking only for myself, I’ve never had any illusions that any political party is anything other than, well, a political party.

In our system that means a coalition of a lot of different interests and a lot of different ideas, held together by the belief or hope that they have enough in common to enable them to agree on a substantial number of policies and to unite behind candidates committed to those policies. The Republican party, loosely considered the conservative party, is a unified expression of conservative ideas and sentiments only in the paranoid fevers (and fund-raising letters) of the left. At a minimum it’s a coalition of social conservatives of whom most but not all are Christians, pragmatic business interests, foreign policy hawks, and libertarians. Anyone capable of defining these terms should be able to see at once that their interests are not identical, although there may be a good deal of overlap among them. I sometimes further simplify this by combining the latter three groups under the term “right-wing,” which is, obviously, not the accepted way of using the term, but seems to me a useful way of separating aggressive nationalism and doctrinaire capitalism from conservatism. The Iraq war, for instance, I would call a right-wing enterprise, but not a conservative one (even though many conservatives support it, and most have not actively opposed it).

The Republican Party is in trouble, and it’s entirely possible that it may decide that its road to survival involves ignoring the social conservatives, who of course have always been disliked and resented by some elements of the party anyway. And whether or not that becomes a deliberate strategy, one can see several scenarios that would cause social conservatives to defect: for instance, the nomination of Rudy Giuliani for president.

This possibility produces no emotional reaction in me at all. My attitude toward the Republican Party has always been notably cold: I have never seen in it enough of my convictions to enable me to identify myself with it, and have regarded it only as the party more likely to do something I want it to do. The only leverage I have in pushing it where I want it to go is my one vote. At what point does it become reasonable for me to withhold that vote?

To withhold my vote would mean either abstaining or voting for a third party. For a number of reasons which I should think are obvious once I’ve described myself as a social conservative, I’m not going to vote for a Democrat as president. I won’t say I would never vote for one, but I don’t foresee it. The argument against this course—not voting, or voting for a third party that has no chance of winning—is that it’s in effect a vote for the party you like least. If you view one party as being at least marginally better than the other and yet do not vote for it, you’ve made it more likely by one vote that the marginally worse party will win. This logic is ironclad; it’s simple arithmetic, and you have to accept it if you’re considering this course.

It’s not, however, the end of the story. Your vote only has persuasive power to the party if they need it to win, and if there’s a chance of your withholding it. If they can take it for granted—truly for granted—you have no power. They can ignore you without risk. If the party is moving away from where you want it to be there may come a time when you have to give the leash a yank, even if it means giving a victory to the party that actively opposes you, because if you don’t you’re going to end up with neither party considering your wishes of any importance whatever. This logic, too, is ironclad, I think.

The time may come when social conservatives are required to issue that reminder to the Republican party. It may come in the 2008 election. But there’s a risk in doing this: when you pull on that leash, it may break or slip off. The party may find that it really doesn’t need you, in which case you could find yourself on the sidelines, yelling to no effect. We may be about to find out just how much purchase socially conservative principles have on the Republican Party and on the electorate in general.

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Music of the Week — April 29, 2007

Patty Loveless: Mountain Soul

This aptly-title collection is pure straight-up country music, which is the kind I like. I don’t listen to all that much country music, and when I do I like for it to be the genuine article, not just pop music with twangy vocals and a fiddle. Mountain Soul could be loosely classified as bluegrass. More precisely, it comprises bluegrass, gospel, and Nashville-style tear-jerkers about love and loss, the sort of songs that could have been (and for all I know were) sung by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn in their primes, but without Nashville schmaltz. There are no electric instruments and no drums: just virtuoso players on mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass, and Loveless’s archetypal country voice, joined on the choruses by that high taut harmony singing that does funny things to your chest and spine.

I’m less than crazy about two or three of the songs, and the album as whole comes across more as a series of independent songs than as a unified work. On the other hand, some of the songs are killers, especially the chilling “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a portrait of life in the coal-mining country, which may belong in the ”unforgettable“ category. This is just the thing to clear the palate if you’ve accidentally ingested a serving of what apparently passes for country music on the radio these days.

Here is the All Music Guide entry.

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Dances With Trains

For the most part I've never found the comedy classics of the silent film area to be terribly funny. Chaplin, for instance: I'm not sure I've ever laughed out loud at one of his films. So when we started the 75 minutes of Buster Keaton's The General one night last weekend I fully expected to fall asleep before it was over.

But not a bit of it. Once it gets rolling, so to speak, this movie is an absolute delight, a long precision romp featuring Keaton, two armies, and a whole lot of railroad equipment. If there's such a thing as genius in physical comedy, this is an instance of it. The word "classic" is thrown around way too loosely in the film world, but it certainly applies here. I actually want to see it again, an impulse I've had with very, very few silent films.

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I Hate It When This Happens

I'm checking in a software module that I checked out back in December (rcs, for any Unix folks who might happen to read this), meaning it's available to be modified by me and only me. When I check it in I'm supposed to include a log message that briefly explains the mod. I list the changed code and can't remember why I made the change. In fact I don't even remember making it. This is third-party software to which we apply local mods, so I go looking in last year's archive of the vendor's tech help list for info. I find a nice thorough explanation right away: in a message posted by me.

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Music of the Week (playing catch-up)

As you may have noticed, Music of the Week has sort of run aground over the past month or so. Among other things, certain obstacles have arisen to my listening routine, making it difficult to spend enough time with one work in the space of a week to come up with anything I'd trust as a definite opinion.

I've just posted the entry for Easter Sunday, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, back-dated so that it appears in correct chronological order. And I hereby declare an official hiatus for the weeks of April 15 and 22, and will attempt to resume the normal schedule after this week. We'll see how I do. Music of the Fortnight is always a possibility.

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Why We Must Talk About God

"Anything less is a form of theft..."

Archbishop Chaput rocks. As Ben points out in the comments, this speech by Archbishop Chaput posted at First Things is terrific. A few of the best passages:

Only one question really matters. Does God exist or not? If he does, that has implications for every aspect of our personal and public behavior: all of our actions, all of our choices, all of our decisions. If God exists, denying him in our public life—whether we do it explicitly like Nietzsche or implicitly by our silence—cannot serve the common good, because it amounts to worshiping the unreal in the place of the real.

...

As Christians we need to live our convictions in the public square with charity and respect for others, but also firmly, with courage and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the moral witness we owe to the public discussion of issues. We can never serve the common good by betraying who we are as believers or compromising away what we hold to be true.

...

The common good is what best serves human happiness in the light of what is real and true. That’s the heart of the matter: What is real and true? If God exists, then the more man flees from God, the less true and real man becomes. If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God is suffering from a peculiar kind of insanity.

There's a not completely useless discussion at Crunchy Con.

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Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2007

American Exceptionalism and the Culture War

Pardon me if I’m announcing my solution to the equation 2+2=X. I’ve been thinking about the question of so-called “American Exceptionalism,” raised in this post and its comments, and I may have come up with an observation that’s perfectly commonplace among people who study these matters on a regular basis.

But I’ll proceed anyway. It occurred to me that the sense of exceptionalism is a factor for both sides in our current cultural conflict. Despite their intense opposition to each other, both are rooted in the tendency to regard the founding of America as some sort of definitive break with the past, at least symbolically. And they basically think this break a good thing, though they disagree about why it was good.

Let me make clear, in passing, that I don’t think America (United States of) is “exceptional” in any intrinsic sense that would imply an exemption from the general limitations of history and the human condition (hence “so-called” above). I’m not even sure that the belief in exceptionalism—by which I mean something stronger and more clearly held than the normal human belief that one’s own people and nation are superior to others—is terribly exceptional: many civilizations seem to have thought of themselves as divinely founded and/or favored. What may be unusual, if not unique, in America is the particular form of our exceptionalism: the belief that we represent an elemental fresh start for the human race, a chance to walk away from history—literally from an Old World—and get things right.

Contrary to the desires of both sides in the controversy, it’s untenable to view the nation, either in its founding or in its subsequent history, as exclusively the expression of a Protestant Christian or a secular skeptical world-view. (There is of course the Catholic argument that the Protestant revolution was the first step toward the displacement of Christendom by secularism, but whether or not that’s true it was certainly not the intention of the early Protestants.) The fact is that what we would call today Protestant fundamentalism and religious skepticism were both very powerful influences in the founding of the nation.

Both believed they were doing something new, making a radical break with a corrupt world. Both had a strong sense of purpose and a sense that what they were beginning was the first step toward some sort of consummation. The Puritans wanted to build the kingdom of God. It’s tempting to say that the other party, the party of the Enlightenment, wanted to build a kingdom free from God. That’s not quite fair, but it does seem that they wanted a world that neither required nor desired God’s immediate attention. With time it has become more clear to both parties that the achievement of the two purposes are mutually exclusive, and for that reason among others the present-day successors of the tolerant deists of old are likely to be explicitly, sometimes ferociously, anti-Christian.

From the sociological and historical as well as from the Catholic point of view, both are deficient. Fundamentalism has the inherent tension of a faith which is totally dependent on a text: the tension always tends to be resolved either into narrowness and fanaticism or indifference, with the meaning of the text becoming so elastic as to be useless. (We’re going to see the same problem working itself out in Islam for some time to come.) Secularism, on the other hand—meaning a worldly order with no transcendent mandate for its axioms—is likely to lose or discard its moral compass and slide into greater and greater evil, or else simply fade away from sheer lack of will to live.

From the sociological and historical point of view, there is really only one institution on the American scene which can synthesize the insights of both parties: its non-negotiable core of transcendent truth puts the divine at the center of things where it must always be in the eyes of the truly religious, while its emphasis on mediation and on secondary causes allow a reasonable space for the liberty prized by secularists (though, unfortunately, no longer enough to satisfy most of them). Not least, it can correct in both the pride of exceptionalism, the sense of exemption and escape from history, the presumption of superiority. (Regarding that last: it’s true that much prestigious American opinion now holds that America is actually worse than almost everybody else, but this seems to me just an inversion of the pride, like the narcissist who is equally self-absorbed whether he thinks too well or too badly of himself.)

Of course this does not mean that Catholicism is true, nor am I advocating that the faith should spread because it would be socially useful. It’s funny, though, how the practical and the truthful turn out, in the long run, to be the same. In a contest between American secularism and American fundamentalism, I would bet on secularism; it seems to me in a stronger position and to have the momentum of history with it. I think it likely that the future of America will be either Catholic or monstrous.

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Francesca's Books

As some probably know, the person who signs herself simply "Francesca" when commenting here is Dr. Francesca Aran Murphy of King's College, University of Aberdeen. She's the author of several books in the theology-philosophy area, including Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Etienne Gilson, which I have not read (and may not be qualified to read), and Mary: Mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary (that link should take you to a Catholic Truth Society page on which the book appears), which I have read and recommend highly, and not only because I am quoted liberally therein.

The work on Mary, which is a sort of long pamphlet or short book, is one of the best and most helpful things I've read on the Blessed Mother. Whether it's my temperament or the times, I have a definite allergy to a lot of the traditional post-Renaissance devotional language, Marian and other, of saints like Louis de Montfort. I'm sorry, but I can't help it. Francesca's book is refreshingly straightforward and level-headed, but not in the progressive-reactionary mode of all too much post-Vatican-II writing about Mary. (By "progressive-reactionary" I mean the habit of mind which is formed mainly by the progressive reaction against the pre-Vatican-II Church.) There's no sense either of strained piety or of reaction against such strain, but rather an exploration, from a common-sensical point of view, of what Mary's specifically feminine and maternal place in the Church really means for us. For me this approach is paradoxically more mystical.

It doesn't look very easy for people in the US to order from the CTS web site. Francesca tells me they plan to update their web site to remedy this in the fairly near future. I'll try to keep an eye out for that and post a notice here when it happens.

The Gilson book was favorably reviewed in Touchstone some months ago. I was going to quote the review but apparently that issue finally migrated to the recycle bin and left this level of existence, and I can't find the review at Touchstone's web site, either. I do remember that the reviewer (James Kushiner, I think) mentioned that the text was "enlivened by touches of humor," or something to that effect. Fancy that.

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Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2007

Pacifism in the War of Words

I found the Marcotte-Edwards controversy of a few weeks ago extremely disheartening. In case you have a very short memory, here’s a synopsis: John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte, impresario of a left-wing blog called Pandagon, to run web operations for his presidential campaign; Christians in general and Catholics in particular objected on the grounds of Marcotte’s apparent hatred of them and their faith; Edwards, after shuffling around for a bit, accepted Marcotte’s resignation.

Pandagon is one of those blogs which gives one the impression that its contributors’ normal state of mind is a combination of burning rage and icy contempt. I had visited it a few times before this controversy because Dawn Eden, irrepressible controversialist that she is, sometimes links to it in the course of arguing with opinions stated there. I’ve never spent much time there because I find the hostility oppressive, to put it mildly. I was appalled that Edwards, a man who wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, would hire its most visible writer to manage his image on the web. As many a commenter pointed out, he looked equally bad whether one believed that he understood what he was doing, or that he did not.

Marcotte was, of course, vigorously and sometimes viciously denounced by Christians. Reportedly she received a number of physical threats, including graphically vicious threats of rape and death. Even if we dismiss these as the work of the anonymous nuts who always come out of the woodwork in any bitter controversy (right-wing bloggers get these kind of threats, too), the Christian response tended to answering malice with malice, which can achieve nothing except a momentary and unsatisfying pleasure of release not unlike that of lust, and made sure that the controversy left no one clean.

A few years ago my friend Reuben, a Mennonite minister, and I were discussing the notorious Westboro Baptist Church which seems mainly devoted to expressing its hatred of homosexuals. This was when the group had first appeared on the national scene and when they still seemed merely obnoxious, not entirely unhinged (“Pray For More Dead Soldiers” is one of their current slogans). Although we agreed that homosexual activity, like any other extra-marital sexual activity, is wrong, we were appalled by Westboro’s tactics. Reuben observed that in any encounter with someone estranged from or hostile to the Christian faith, as is generally going to be the case with a practicing homosexual, one ought to say and do nothing that cannot stand the light of the question How can I bring this person closer to Christ?

One didn’t get much sense that this question was much on the minds of the Christians who denounced Marcotte. The anger was natural, of course; I certainly shared it and probably would have expressed it if I had taken the time to comment. But to respond in kind to anti-Christian insults is not only ineffective—what are the chances that Marcotte’s hostility to Christianity was lessened by any of this?—but in contradiction to the Lord’s instructions: …but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The Church does not hold that this admonition denies the right of self-defense against physical violence. Yet surely if there is any situation in which it ought to be taken as literal and binding it’s the response to a verbal attack. One might argue that an insult to the faith justifies or at least allows a more vigorous response than insult to oneself, but even there we should be guided by the question above—How can I bring this person closer to Christ? If a stern response is required, it should be delivered with dignity and respect and without personal animosity or insult. We should be guided by the hope that the person we’re addressing will come to understand the offense he or she has committed, which is not least an injury to himself, and not by the desire to inflict injury in response.

And if the attack is upon oneself, there seems to me no question but that we must turn the other cheek. If someone calls me a wicked fool, I have no right to say the same to him in return; if this is not true, then Matthew 5:38-48 is just pleasant poetry. I’m within my rights to deny the false accusation of a specific act. If someone says I robbed a bank, I can and should deny it, and disprove it if I can. But I’m not justified in assassinating his character in response. If he says he finds me loathsome and despicable, I don’t see how I can justify a response in kind. Is Matthew 5:44 meant seriously or not?—But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

None of this should be taken as a desire to impose upon us all a bland “civility” which would preclude or discourage the utterance of any difficult truth. Genuine civility (to say nothing of Christian teaching) does not require suppressing the truth; quite the contrary. But one can tell the truth without rancor and hatred. Indeed, we’re obligated to do so. It’s a question of the salvation of souls, both our own and those of our enemies. Ferocious anti-Christians like Amanda Marcotte often seem to be in some obscure pain, and of course hatred itself is a kind of pain. When I face God I don’t want to have to explain why I saw fit to increase the pain of a person already suffering.

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